Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Police want out of race accord

FOP claims judge biased

By Jane Prendergast and Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Cincinnati's police union wants out of the historic collaborative agreement on police reform, saying its officers shouldn't have to work with an attorney who continues to sue them and a federal judge the union thinks is biased.

More than 200 officers voted unanimously Monday night to withdraw from the collaborative, Fraternal Order of Police leaders announced Tuesday. Instead, Vice President Keith Fangman said, the union will develop and implement an anti-crime program with the presidents of the community councils in all the city's 52 neighborhoods.

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"Frankly," he said, "that's who we should've been working with all along."

The withdrawal - which must be approved by that same allegedly biased judge - U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott - drew support from Mayor Charlie Luken, who said it was predictable, "given the way our police have been treated."

But attorney Ken Lawson called it a plot to help the city get what it really wants: To get out of the year-old police reform agreement without being seen as "the bad guy."

Councilman Pat DeWine, chairman of the law and public safety committee, said council would watch what happens with the FOP pullout and then decide if it's worth it for the city to stay in the deal. Because the collaborative was agreed upon to end a lawsuit that alleged decades of police officers treating black people poorly, the city's withdrawal could reactivate that lawsuit for trial.

Officers became frustrated with the collaborative about a month ago, Fangman said, after two decisions by Dlott. She allowed the Black United Front activist group to withdraw but kept its attorney, Lawson, as a lawyer who will represent African-American interests.

Officers do not like that. They say Lawson gets information through his work on the collaborative and uses it against officers in other lawsuits.

Fangman also took offense to some words Dlott used in her opinion allowing Lawson to stay. In it, she said civil rights violations by officers "continue to occur" despite the collaborative and that "inevitably, they will continue in the future."

Those phrases show, he said, that the judge seems to already have come to unfair conclusions about Cincinnati police officers.

"I don't care if she's a federal judge," Fangman said. "She needs to be held accountable."

The judge oversees compliance with both the collaborative agreement and the Justice Department's agreement. Though both were signed the same day by some of the same officials, they include different things. The Justice agreement pertains to specific reforms like use of force, training and a new way for citizens to complain about police.

The collaborative agreement encourages more police interaction with citizens and requires the department to embrace problem-oriented policing, a method by which officers are supposed to identify the underlying issue causing a particular crime problem and fix it, rather than simply respond to the incident. There has been an ongoing debate over how exactly problem-oriented policing should work.

The cost of the reforms has been estimated at $7 million.

Justice Department officials are disappointed the collaborative "has run into problems," said spokesman Jorge Martinez, but the department will continue to work with the city on implementation of the Justice reforms.

That is different from what U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said in April 2002 during a national news conference from Cincinnati. Then, he said he wanted the settlements, plural, to serve as a model for the rest of the country.

"I ... hope that the spirit of cooperation and reconciliation that led to these agreements can be replicated elsewhere," Ashcroft said.

Dlott, through an assistant, declined to comment on the FOP announcement.

Fangman wouldn't elaborate on what legal leverage the union thinks it has to get out or what "legal strategies" it might use if Dlott doesn't agree to let the union out.

Attorney Al Gerhardstein, also a lawyer for the Black United Front, questioned whether a vote of only 200-some officers could nullify the vote the FOP took to get into the collaborative. All officers were invited to vote then, rather than just those who showed up at the monthly FOP meeting.

"At every step of the way, if we had all three parties, it would be better," he said. "Unlike other cities, the fact that we had the FOP on board here was the mark of a very cooperative effort, and I'm still hopeful we can make that happen."

Robert Anglen contributed to this report.

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